Climbin' the ladder

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- While it may not be fair, it seems somehow appropriate that Arlington, Ga., native Joanna Smith is making her biggest splash in Music City through the video she shot with producer Trey Fanjoy for her debut Columbia Nashville single "Gettin' Married."

Smith is, after all, as beautiful -- and as smart -- as she is talented, a former Early County High School valedictorian and Miss Teen Georgia America who left Auburn University during her freshman year to come to Nashville as part of an all-girl band. The band lasted a week; Smith stayed on.

So while "Gettin' Married" has failed to crack the Top 40 of the Billboard country singles chart, its video has moved into the Top 20 on Great American Country's weekly Top 20, helped, no doubt, by one of the freshest faces in the industry.

"Whether a person is beautiful, well, that's in the eyes of the individual," Smith said during a phone interview while she excitedly shopped for a new notebook at a CVS Pharmacy. "But this has become such a visual industry, through videos, photo shoots, the Internet. I've got about a million pictures out there.

"I learned when I was a little girl you're not supposed to judge by looking at the cover, but I'll admit I've bought CDs before because of the way the person looks on the cover. As long as things are respectfully done -- and I feel like they are with the label and with my management -- I have no problem with my looks being part of what helps me."

Since making her way to Nashville, Smith has followed a career path that will sound very familiar to Southwest Georgia country music fans. She signed a publishing contract that eventually led to one of her songs -- "Flying By" -- being recorded by Billy Ray Cyrus (you know, Miley's dad) for his 2007 album "Home at Last."

Columbia signed Smith to a recording contract early this year, and in August she released "Gettin' Married," one of eight tracks planned for her debut album. Smith wrote seven of the tracks.

Change the names and the song titles around, and that could be the biography of Leesburg native son Luke Bryan.

"Definitely, that's what Luke did," Smith said. "We were friends before either of us moved up here, and Luke was the first person I called when I got here. I still call him for advice."

While an extensive radio tour, during which she met and pitched her music to execs at influential stations across the country, led to only moderate airplay for "Gettin' Married," the video is still gaining steam.

"I've always heard that your first single is a 'sacrifice song'," Smith said. "Even if it's your best song, there's a period where people are getting to know you, so it's tough for that first song to have the impact that you might think it would.

"I think we're going to let 'Gettin' Married' do what it will through the holidays, then we'll release my second single, 'Georgia Mud,' at the first of the year. I really love this song, so we'll see how it goes."

Smith, who -- home folks in Arlington will be pleased to know -- still has her down-home country charm and that sweet Southern accent, took time from her shopping trip this week to talk with The Herald.

ALBANY HERALD: Congratulations on the success of your video. Is this one of those songs that you knew was going to take off, or are you surprised by the success?

JOANNA SMITH: Well, actually, it's the video that's doing really well now. We went on this radio tour across the country that was just grueling. There are large stations in big markets that are "reporting stations" (for chart position), and I'm a little disappointed at the response we've gotten from that. It's very political and difficult to get their support. But the video's doing great. We're getting great exposure on GAC, and that never hurts.

AH: So will you continue to push "Gettin' Married" or move on to your next single?

JS: We're going to let ("Gettin' Married") do what it will through the holidays, I think, then we'll release my second single, "Georgia Mud," at the first of the year. When we went on the radio tour, we decided to poll (radio executives) on my music to get their input. We took "Gettin' Married," "Georgia Mud" and "Kissing in Public" and asked them to rate the songs. A lot of them said they thought "Georgia Mud" was the strongest song.

AH: Are you involved in this whole process, or do you leave all that to your management team?

JS: I've been lucky so far; of course, it could be because I'm still in the honeymoon period. The folks at the record company and my management folks haven't really tried to change me. I'm grateful for that.

AH: Is Columbia giving you the kind of push you'd hoped for?

JS: It's really mind-blowing to see what it takes to make something work in this city. Our promotional staff has pushed the stew out of my stuff. It's crazy how hard those guys work.

AH: You said when you went to Nashville that you were going up there to conquer the music world. Are you satisfied with the progress you've made?

JS: I think I've come along pretty good so far, but I have a long ways to go. But I actually love it up here. I'm still adjusting because I can't begin to describe how hard you have to work to try and make a career in this business. I can't even explain what you have to go through: working out, eating right, writing, promoting ... It's just so hard, but I've always known that anything worth doing is not easy.

AH: Your career path is very similar to Luke Bryan's. Do you see the parallels?

JS: Oh, absolutely. I've watched his career to see what he's done, and he's never been shy about giving me advice along the way, which I appreciate. Both of us came up here blind, not knowing what we were getting into, and he's inspired me. I also know if I need his help, I can call him.

AH: A lot of success in the music business is built around contacts. Have you made some good contacts since you've been in Nashville?

JS: A lot of people think it's knowing the artists that matters here, but they're among the last people who can help you. I have met a lot of artists and have become good friends with some of them. Mostly what they've done is helped me figure out what's going on in this crazy, weird, totally abnormal life. They're why Nashville is such a friendly, embracing town.

AH: OK, name-drop for us. Who are some of the folks you're buddies with?

JS: I've gotten to write with some of my heroes, folks like Pam Tillis and Steve Wariner. Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert and Jake Owen are all real nice.

AH: What about the jerks? Surely you've met some of them, too.

JS: I probably shouldn't name names, but you're right. You run into folks who are so sweet to you one day, and the next time you see them and speak to them, they all but ignore you.

AH: Do you miss Southwest Georgia, being home?

JS: It's funny how domestic I've become since I've been up here. When I get to my place (in Nashville), I go into a frenzy of cooking and cleaning. But I miss being home in Southwest Georgia; I miss my folks really bad. But they're coming up here this weekend, and I'll get to spend a lot of time with them over the holidays. I'm looking forward to that.

AH: Folks say being away like you have and doing what you do can change a person. How about you?

JS: Funny, but I really think I'm even more -- from leaving home and not knowing what's out there to coming completely full-circle -- I'm more myself than I ever was. You know what I'm doing right now? I'm in a CVS looking for a new notebook. I've got a writing appointment today with two of my favorite guys -- Mark Nesler and Tony Martin -- and I've been hankering for a new notebook.

AH: Is there pressure to create a song when you have a session like that?

JS: Ideally, you wait for the time when the magic happens. But there's always pressure to come up with good material. I think that's a good thing, though, I get energy from that pressure.

AH: Here's one to break all the guys' hearts. Have you found yourself a man up there in music city?

JS: I have. I've been dating Trent Willmon about a year now. He's from Texas, and he does what I do. He had a Top 15 hit a while ago, so he's someone who gives me great advice. He's really wonderful.

AH: We'll end with this: A lot of people fly by the seat of their pants, while others work off a master plan. What about you; is there a plan for your career?

JS: I learned pretty quick that plans can fly out the window, but everything happens on its own time. I have goals, but -- and this may sound cliche -- if my music is touching people, I've achieved what I wanted. At the end of the day, that's what really matters.